Open Spaces and Difficult Conversations at GDS

On November 10, Open Spaces were brought to the GDS high-school, facilitated by members of GDS’s student and faculty community. And while it may seem that these conversations are in the distant past, they will be returning twice more over the course of the remaining school year. Open Space discussions are defined as “a self-organizing practice of inner discipline and collective activity, which releases the inherent creativity and leadership in people. By inviting people to take responsibility for what they care about, Open Space establishes a marketplace of inquiry, reflection, and learning, bringing out the best in both individuals and the whole.” After upsetting events within the school occur, it is a common misconception that the Open Space discussions are put in place as a reaction to these specific events; serving the purpose of giving all members of the GDS high school community an opportunity to discuss and process whatever they might be feeling or thinking. In reality, the Open Spaces had been planned for months prior to the incidents, yet in some cases, the Open Spaces played the additional role of discussing the recent events.

Crissy Cáceres, Assistant Head of School for Equity and Social Impact had brought the idea to high school principal Katie Gibson. In an interview, Gibson explained that the Open Spaces came as Cáceres’s idea in response to Gibson’s reaction to her first few weeks at GDS. She further explained this reaction: “[The Open Spaces] came out of my opening weeks here just feeling these two truths of both GDS being a place that is incredibly engaged in issues of equity and social justice and kids are very passionate about it and yet there’s lots of language being used that doesn’t align with that.” This sentiment has been expressed by GDS students over the years, which contributes to the largely positive feedback to the Open Space discussions. Freshman Kyle White repeated this in an interview when asked if he felt that the GDS community needed to have these conversations. He added, “I thought the conversations were good and liked the small groups of ten to twelve.”

The positive feedback was not exclusively from the students; in addition, many teachers and faculty members had positive feedback about the Open Spaces. Lakaya Renfrow, Diversity Office Program Associate and co-facilitator of the “Conversations about Conversations” Open Space discussion, applauded the Open Spaces saying, “I think they’re an excellent way of cultivation discussions, conversations [and] reflections.” Cáceres assured that these conversations would be ongoing. “We had a lot of students talking about it for several days.” She recounted. “Many students felt like this is great because, as imperfect as it was, it gave [them] an opportunity to really use [their] voices, to have students be in the front rather than adults leading the conversation.” She also praised the feedback she and Gibson received from many students saying, “Students had really constructive feedback and ideas.” and that is was “Very important for us to learn what we need to think about for the next time around.” Cáceres explained that not only had these Open Spaces cultivated deep, constructive conversation but it also prompted many seniors to take on leadership roles around these difficult topics. “Their belief is that this highlighted a point in time for them to independently lead conversations about some of these pieces,” she described.

As some may remember they followed through on this idea, leading what they hope to be the first of multiple conversations about the N-word, its history and its role in our lives today. “My dream, my hope” Cáceres concluded,  “is that we as a high school become really well versed in the practice of having difficult conversations and that we can have them around many different topics and that we don’t have to wait for ‘a thing’ to occur.”

By Liana Smolover-Bord ’21